Saturday, January 10, 2009

What do Palm and Doug Flutie Have In Common?

I've always been a huge fan of Doug Flutie. I grew up right down the street from the very stadium he played his college ball (and made his legend). I followed him through both the CFL and the NFL. In fact, I even flew hundreds of miles, just for the chance to see him play. No matter how successful as a pro he was, everyone always remembers Doug Flutie for the play that put him on the national stage: the Hail Mary pass that won the Bowl.

Years later, while he was setting record after record in Canada, his team even brought the recipient of that pass, Gerard Phelan, to the team. Was Phelan that great? Not at all. Did Flutie need a great receiver? Absolutely not. But the team wanted the public to recapture their sense of awe and wonder at this display that changed the world by evoking the connection of that Hail Mary.

This week, another former champion, known for taking the world by storm, took the stage again for one last Hail Mary pass: Palm. Similarly, it was a desperate situation: Palm had practically owned the smartphone game with the Treo, but in recent years, the brand, company, and products faltered, and desperation set in. With all of the gravitas of that last second chance, Palm staged their Hail Mary this week at the Consumer Electronics Show. The lights came down, the stage lit up, and the pass was launched high over the heads of the curious, anxious spectators...and, like Flutie, it delivered the score when it needed to.

This is the last, desperate hope of a company that introduced the world to the smartphone, a concept we take for granted now. At this year's CES, the CEO of Palm, Ed Colligan, pointed out some of the innovations Palm was once known for. For instance, when the Palm Pilot was first introduced, the competition was not a laptop or other smartphone; it was pen and paper. The near-legendary story goes that, when designing the perfect interface and form factor for the Palm Pilot, Ed and the other team members carried around a block of wood, pretending it was the perfect device. From that, the UI became intuitive, and the PDA was born. Similarly, when getting into the smartphone space, others tried to shrink the laptop; Palm tried to instead expand the range of the PDA, and it worked.

With all of that, Palm's Hail Mary is the Palm Pre: a completely new smartphone. The market has changed, so Palm's approach with the Pre has changed. Today, we have the iPhone, Blackberry, and Windows Mobile phones, as well as Google's Android platform just launching. Palm hired Jon Rubenstein away from Apple and focused on building an innovative product to take back the space that Apple had claimed, and the Pre does just that. It innovates in several excellent ways, and builds on both Palm's expertise and experience, in a way that is unique.

If you think of it, today's smartphone market is actually a selection of Frankensteins: each of the popular phones was an evolution of a solution to a specific problem. The iPhone is the mobile communication expression of the iPod: a device who's roots are in music, media, and smooth interaction with the Apple application universe. The Blackberry is the ultimate expression of an e-mail-only device, with media and web functions bolted on. Windows Mobile tries to be the familiar desktop operating system, on a smaller screen, for those who need that level of comfort. Android is..well, very raw and powerful, much like all of Google's great apps. But all of these are evolutions from a specific set of roots; the Pre is not. Here's some examples:

- In almost every popular mobile smartphone platform, the interface is modal: whatever you are doing completely takes over the screen at all times. Part of this is a result of programming for small screens, but mostly it's familiar. The Pre is not: alerts, emails, alarms, SMS...they all flow neatly into the edge of the screen, allowing you to expand their focus when you want, but not distracting you from finishing that e-mail or watching that video. In a mobile platform, that is incredibly powerful, and much more useful; only Google's Android even comes close to this.

- Apple innovated the touchscreen incredibly well with the iPhone. The Pre does better, simultaneously introducing intuitive gesture based navigation, while hearkening back to Palm's touchscreen/input area roots. No Save buttons; the Pre assumes everything is saved, always, and gives you access to all of your data or apps with a single finger flick.

- In every other platform, Search is an option. In the Pre, it's the default. Start typing, anywhere, and it immediately gives you the things that match. Application names, contacts, emails, songs, or web separate searches or even a search application; it just looks, and gives you the options. I have over 3000 contacts alone; being able to simply type whatever I am thinking, whether it be to settle a bet or make a phone call, and have the Pre do the work of finding it, is far, far better than having to bring up a phone app, scroll through the list, find the right number...

- Palm knows sync; in fact, they brought the concept to the world. As they point out in the keynote, the world's sync problems are different now. When the Palm Pilot came around, it was about digitizing your rolodex and syncing with your PC. Now, it's about keeping your social web in sync with your address book. The Pre assumes your data is "in the cloud;" it focuses on seamlessly, intuitively syncing your address book with Facebook, or Gmail, with little to no effort from you. To me, this is the most powerful feature: it's like Plaxo and Xobni in the UI of a phone. It makes the phone the central hub, not an add on, which reflects more and more the truth of smartphone users.

- The Pre does a lot of what they are calling "synergy." This means, for instance, if I get an SMS, the Pre shows me, but it also shows me if the person is on IM or e-mail. I can choose to carry on the same conversation, platform to platform, regardless; it focuses on the conversation, not the medium. This means if I get an IM, but the person signs off, I can continue the same conversation, in the same screen, over SMS or e-mail.

- The hardware is very well thought out. 3.1" screen (about .4" smaller than the iPhone) gives plenty of real estate. Slide out keyboard is a real winner and an iPhone killer, especially for those business users for e-mail. Form factor focuses on compact but not crowded: very elegant use of space, and very slim. Standards abound, from the headphone jack to Micro USB expansion slots. A removable battery, allowing the user to never be without. And, to my mind, best of all, wireless induction charging, allowing you to simply rest the phone on a small paperweight and it charges: no cables to plug in, no contacts to line up.

This device needed to be all that it is, and Palm delivered. It takes a radically different approach to the smartphone, and pays off in a revolutionary way, one that will yield dividends. As we felt when we saw the iPhone, this device changes everything. Ironically, it came the same week as the most lackluster Apple keynote since Steve returned to Apple, and the similarities of this keynote were startling. It was like the reality distortion field dissipated in Cupertino and reformed in Las Vegas: Ed Colligan did a great Steve Jobs, and Jon Rubenstein was a fantastic Jonathan Ives.

So, the $1,000,000 question: having been a true iPhone fanatic since the launch, and having completely come over to the Apple world, would I be willing to chuck the iPhone for a Palm Pre? The answer is a very surprising, but highly conditional, yes. Yep, I like what I see, and I can see this device answering a slew of problems I have. So why conditional?

- No one knows how much this device will cost. Rumors range from $99 to $399. Given that they are going after the iPhone and Android, it should cost about $199-$249. However, Palm has a shaky history on pricing: the new model Treos have routinely been at the $499 range, before they have lowered the price to something normal. To hit it out of the park, I'd say $199 is the magic number.

- Sprint is the only carrier, to start with. To be fair, I have little recent info on them, but Amy's Kindle uses Sprint's data network for it's connection, and that's been pretty poor where we live. I'm sure it's far better in the city, and, like my iPhone, I mostly use WiFi at home and the office. However, switching carriers is a big question mark for me, and I'd have to be seriously convinced of the reliability. Gotta say, I love the idea of having access to the NFL's exclusive mobile content to Sprint, though.

- In all of the cool demos, there was not a single shot I could find of the device's ability to play video. Honestly, this is one of the killer apps of the iPhone: watching movies or video podcasts is a no-brainer, and they look great. I find the lack of video demo suspicious, and makes me concerned about using the Pre as a media player.

- Likewise, the music player looks good, but the iPhone/iTunes sync is really what sets it apart. All I can think of, based on their insistence that this device is meant to be it's own stand alone, and the presence of a big internal memory, as well as expandability to other storage, means that there is no "music sync;" you just put it on the device, and manage your music there. Given their stress on "all Pre applications will have internet connectivity," I can only hope a native podcast client will also be part of it. With those, I could see freeing myself from iTunes.

- When does this thing come out? First half of 2009; um...huh? This is one area Apple excels at: they announce the device, and set the date. Between now and "then," we could have a whole new firmware revision to the iPhone (vastly increasing its capabilities); a slew of new Android phones (with a wealth of new applications), and more. This should have been ready to buy Feb. 1.

There are still lots more questions. How well will it support Exchange? I saw Chapura prominently listed as a partner up there; that makes me concerned that Exchange support will not be native. How powerful will the apps be? The iPhone has some serious hardware to take on even gaming consoles, but the Pre looks to be more lightweight, but easier to develop for. Given it's power to be the hub, how effectively does it back up? I lose or break my iPhone, and I can just plug in a new one, and it restores it perfectly. What will the PC/Mac interaction be? Or will there really need to be, given that you can mount it as a USB drive? Like I said, still lots more...

The Palm Pre looks to be a touchdown pass. It's focus on truly intuitive use, full seamless anticipatory integration of multiple social and personal sources of data, it's purported ease of development, and it's hardware all make it look like the Hail Mary we hoped for. But the lack of details I've outlined here will determine where Gerard Phelan lands with that ball cradled in his arms: the endzone, or out of bounds. I'm hoping, desperately, that this returns Palm to the forefront and adds to the legend.

For those of you that would like to see the actual CES hour long unveiling and full demo of the Pre, here you go, courtesy of Engadget. It's as enjoyable as any Apple keynote, and fascinating to see the real deal.

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